What is art? (My dear wife might now say something like, "Don't you mean, 'Art who?'" - but she has already told me she won't touch this question on-line with a virtual forty foot pole.)
I have pondered and debated this question for nearly thirty years, and I studied the question and did an honors thesis on it in college (where I graduated with a degree in Philosophy including Aesthetics). It's a confusing question, that makes people angry (or bored) - but I think I've got it mostly sorted out now. I hope by writing these posts I can clarify for myself, in this public place, what I mean by art - and hopefully, if you read all this, it will clarify what YOU mean by art.
The largest problem most of us have in any conversation about art is that we usually aren't talking about the same things. So let's get a few things clear up front.
Item #1. I am going to assume that the word "art" or the idea of a "work of art" has a distinct meaning. It means something in particular, and clarity is possible. If you don't think that's true, perhaps my posts will persuade you of it by the end, but I think we have a better chance of understanding each other if we can grant this item at the start - at least for now.
Item #2. Art is not a value word. It's not like "good" or "wonderful" or "best" or even "beautiful." We sometimes use the word this way - to elevate something by calling it a work of art - but that's not the correct technical use of the word "art." Art can be good or bad, can fail or succeed, can be beautiful or ugly or neither, and still be art. So art is a type of thing - not a way of saying how good a thing it is.
This idea that art is somehow "better" than other objects causes most of the heat in the arguments. Americans are egalitarian, and they hate to see some objects, or some work, raised above others. And many artists and art critics are snobs, and that causes further damage (I've done my share of that). But this idea that "art" is somehow "higher" than other things is misleading and just clouds all conversation. Art may turn out to be more difficult to do well, or more rare than some other types of objects - but we have yet to decide what art IS, so it's too early to say that.
Item #3. "Art" should be distinguished from "craft." I will plainly state here that I have seen many works of craft that were more valuable, more beautiful, and took more human effort than other items which I believe are works of art. This gets back to #2, above - just because something is "art" doesn't make it better, more valuable, or more beautiful than "craft," but there is a difference, and unraveling that difference is a large part of the work I plan to do in the next few posts.
Item #4. Some "art" is about art, is commenting specifically on the status of art, and is even deliberately breaking the rules that define art - all in the name of art. This sort of game is lots of fun for some people, especially for people who understand the jokes or implied comments, but it has greatly confused most of us. I intend to discuss these works as we travel along - but they make the most sense later. For now, though, it is important to realize that a lot of modern art is weird in this way - and so we'd be better off leaving it out of the conversation for now. Let's say that some modern art is like "the exception that proves the rule."
In the next post we'll start with "everything" and start chipping things away that aren't art. This might help us get closer to what it is - or at least help us find some characteristics of "art."